Culture

The gap grows – how champions are becoming more dominant

AS the current season begins to look remarkably familiar in England, Italy and France, CIES Football Observatory have confirmed what we all know – that football at the highest level is suffering from huge and growing imbalances.

In 2017-18, the champions of the so-called “big five” leagues accumulated 83.3% of points available to them. In 2009, they won 73.4% of points. That’s a big jump within nine years.

Photo: PA

Interestingly, the most notable rise across Europe in the past five years has been in three of the “big five” – thanks to the overwhelming recent dominance of Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and Juventus in France, Germany and Italy respectively.

In France, for example, the league champions between 2009-2013 secured 70% of points, while in the PSG-driven era of 2014-2018, the percentage has climbed to 80%. In that same period, Germany has seen a 7.2 percentage point rise and Italy 8.3.

This season, there are signs that some of the champions are in even more menacing form – Manchester City have already won 91.11%, PSG 91.67% and Juventus 95.24%.

These figures underline a number of factors, not least the rise of a band of “uber clubs” that are head and shoulders above their rivals in the big five domestic leagues. The development of this trend dates back more than a decade and in England manifested itself in the form of the rise of near-invincible champions – Arsenal in 2004 (zero) and Chelsea a year later (just one defeat). Manchester City in 2017-18 lost just twice, a far cry from their 1968 success when they were beaten 10 times!

It is also worth noting that great league champions have not always racked-up huge points totals. A good example is all-conquering Arsenal during the 1930s, whose average points haul in their championship years was 69.77%. Similarly, the Huddersfield Town hat-trick heroes of the 1920s averaged 68.26% over their three seasons at the top. Tottenham’s double winning team of 1960-61 won 78.57%,  Leeds United’s first title-winning side 79.76% and Liverpool’s 1978-79 line-up accumulated 80.95%. These were, of course, more democratic times. In more recent years, Chelsea’s 2004-05 champions won 83.33% while last season’s Manchester City came in at an astonishing 87.72%.

In contemporary terms, across the top European leagues, goal difference per game has also widened to 1.357 (from 1.289 in 2009), emphasising the growing gap between the top clubs and the also-rans. Over the past five seasons, the percentage of games with a margin or three or more goals has increased from 14.3% (between 2009-2013) to 15.3% (2014-2018). As well as highlighting the strength of the clubs on top, this may also reflect tactical shifts – a lot of teams are built around attack today as opposed to stopping play, although there are notable exceptions.

Over the 10 seasons studied by CIES, the biggest average goal difference per game was found in the UEFA Champions League, 1.58 goals. This is not too much of a surprise given some of the dramatic results the competition has thrown up in recent years – the PSG-Barca games in 2017 and Liverpool against Manchester City in 2018 are a case in point. This undoubtedly contributes to the enduring appeal of the UEFA Champions League in its knockout stages. The leagues that follow the UCL in terms of average goal difference by game are the Eredivisie (1.554), Austrian Bundesliga (1.502) and the Swiss Super League (1.452).

The Champions League has a remarkable 21% of its games generating a goal difference of three or more goals, while the Dutch league is also very high at 20.9%.

CIES concludes that its research illustrates a trend towards greater imbalances in European football, both on a match-by-match basis and across an entire campaign. “The differences mirror the economic divides between teams, but in absolute terms, these gaps are more marked in the richest leagues.”

There is a clear warning for Europe’s administrators in that the concentration of financial resources is closely aligned to the concentration of talent. “Many teams and leagues are confined to a stepping-stone role for up-and-coming players,” says CIES. While this certainly generates transfer market income for the clubs that have become, de facto nurseries for Europe’s largest clubs, the financial rewards are still insufficient to halt increasing competitive imbalance.

The current situation, clearly, favours the wealthy, who continue to strengthen their sporting, economic and political domination of the world’s most popular sport.

To see CIES Football Observatory’s work, click here

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